Final Notes on Jewishness in Gary Shtyengart’s Absurdistan – Take 1

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The image of Judaism and Jewishness that comes across to the readers of
Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is disturbing in many ways. Over the last month, I have written several blog entries on Gary Shteyngart’s representation of circumcision (by way of Misha, the main character of Absurdistan).   As I point out in many of these blog entries, the description of circumcision and his “mutilated” penis (descriptions that have much resonance with Paul and even Augustine’s most anti-Jewish words) are not, as they say, “good for the Jews.”  Although the author may not have intended this, the fact of the matter is that each of these descriptions makes Judaism into a barbaric and primitive kind of religion.  But, to be sure, this is what Misha thinks about when he thinks of Judaism.

At the outset of my readings of Absurdistan, I wrote a blog on the Prologue which notes Misha’s description of the “Mountain Jews” he meets in Absurdistan as “pre-historic.”

They are “prehistoric, premammalian even, like some clever miniature dinosaur that once schlepped across the earth, the Haimossaurus.”

As we learn in the Prologue, he doesn’t want to stay with this group of “pre-historic” Jews.  He appreciates their hospitality, but he finds it “overwhelming.”  He needs air and feels he must leave the Jews for his Latino-African-American girlfriend, in his second home, New York City:

The mountain Jews coddle and cosset me; their hospitality is overwhelming…and yet I yearn to take to the air. To soar across the globe.  To land on the corner of 173rd Street and Vyse, where she is waiting for me.  (viii)

Ultimately, Jews and his circumcision make him fill ill-at-ease.  And while at the outset of the novel he refers himself as a “secular Jew,” later on, toward the end of the novel, Misha refers to himself as a “multicultualist.”  In front of other people, he doesn’t seem to like Jews and shows no preference for his “pre-historic” roots; rather, he likes “others”:

“I am not much taken with Judaism,” I announced.  “I am a multiculturalist.”  Except there was no Russian word for “multiculturalist,” so I had to say, “I am a man who likes others.”(218)

This declaration comes at an odd time in the novel since he is, at this point, asked to get money for the Svani “cause” by way of making an appeal to the Jews for money (224).  To this end, he is appointed the “Minster of Multicultural affairs.”  The appeal to multiculturalism, he thinks will bring money.  However, Misha learns that he must appeal to Israel for money; but to do this, Misha has to act “as if” he wants to do something for the Jews when, in fact, Misha’s not interested in doing anything for them.  After all, he’s a “multiculturalist.”

This new task confuses him.  When he thinks about what to do, he is thrown into an imaginary conversation with this dead father (who, as I mentioned in other blogs, had prompted him to get his circumcision).  His father loved Jewishness and Israel and, as we can see, Misha does not.

In his imaginary conversation, Misha wants his father to see him as an independent man: “Papa! Look at me!  Look how fine I’ve grown.”  But in his memory, Misha notes that his father was too busy with work and didn’t pay attention to him.  Misha remembers how his father had, in a sense, ruined his life.  Amongst the things he recalls, we find the circumcision.

How little use he had for me.  But then why did you send for me, Papa?  Why did you interrupt my life?  Why did you have to put me through all this?  Why did you have my khui (penis) snipped?  I have a religion, too, Papa, only it celebrates the real. (235)

Misha is a man-child looking for his father’s approval.  Yet, at the same time, he tries to be independent.  For this reason, he tells his father that, like him, he wants to help a people; but not the Jewish people; rather, the Sevo people:

“I want to believe in something, too, Papa,” I said. “Just like you believed in Israel. I want to help the Sevo people.  I’m not stupid.  I know they’re no good.  But they’re better than their neighbors.” (237)

His imaginary conversation inspires him to help the Sevo people.  To this end, he drafts up a proposal so as to get money from the Israelis (which he will give to the Sevo people).  The irony is that the project is dedicated to the preservation of Jewish identity by way of an appeal to the Holocaust and Holocaust memory.

The project name is: “The Institute for Caspian Holocaust Studies, aka the Museum of Sevo-Jewish Friendship.”

I’ll cite his justification for this project since it will give the reader a sense of how Misha is playing the “identity card”:

The greatest danger facing American Jewry is our people’s eventual assimilation into the welcoming American fold and our subsequent extinction as an organized community.  Due to the overabundance of presentable non-Jewish partners in the country as tantalizing diverse and half naked as America, it is becoming difficult if not impossible to convince young Jews to engage in reproductive sex with each other….It is time to turn to the most effective, time-tested, and target-specific arrow in our quiver – the Holocaust. (268)

The irony of all this is that he is not convinced by this argument for Jewish identity but, nonetheless, he makes it so as to solicit money.  He isn’t interested in perpetuating Jewish identity, but he acts “as if” he is:

Identity politics are a great boon in our quest for Continuity. Identity is born almost exclusively out of a nation’s travails.  For us…this means Holocaust, Holocaust, Holocaust.  The twin halves of the broken matzoh will be infused with the spirit of the New Tribalism that is captivating young people across the Western world in angry response to global homogenization.

To be sure, Misha has no interest in this “New Tribalism”; in fact, he’s running away from it.  And he would rather assimilate than hang out with the Mountain Jews.  For this reason, we can rest assured that Misha  must be chuckling when he describes the New Tribalism as a combination of Holocaust Memory and “towering videos of Jewish college boys at fraternity mixers hitting up demure Korean girls, while pretty suburban Jewish maideleh fetishize their urbanized African American counterparts at a Smith Barney softball game. Subtext: six million died and you’re twirling around a bar stool with some hazzar?”(270).

The point of all this is to show how Misha, a “multiculturalist,” sees Jewishness as pre-historic and out of tune with the tide of globalization.  However, as I will point out in the next blog entry, he is, in the end, duped by the “Sevo people.”  And on his way out, he is saved by the “Mountain Jews.”  Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to stay with them.  For, as I noted in the outset, they make him uncomfortable.

To be sure, it is Jewishness that makes Misha, the multiculturalist, uneasy.  He associates it with his father, with his circumcision, and with a people that wants to preserve itself through the Holocaust industry and guilt.  Perhaps we can argue that this is a satire and that Misha needs to get in touch with a Jewishness that he has trashed; however, I haven’t as yet seen any of these readings or heard anything from the author to this tune.

For this reason, it seems as if there is an element of truth for Shtyengart in this reaction to things Jewish.   And for those of us who think differently about Jewishness, these types of quips against it may make the character less charming and more troubling.

And the irony of it all is the fact that he is more interested in “other” people preserving their identity and less in his own people’s doing so.  And for the strange reason that one kind of preservation is better than the other because one is modern (and not Jewish) while the other is a “pre-historic” and ancient practice.  This, it seems, is his major blindspot and may, in fact, be the thing that makes him into a multicultural-schlemiel-of-sorts.

…to be continued

I Don’t Have to Grow Up, I’m an American Kid: Gary Shteyngart’s Parody (?) of American Dreams

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Near the end of Gary Shteyngart’s second novel – Absurdistan – Misha, the main character, reflects on what he learned about America from “Accidental College.”  What we find in this account is a description of America as a place where the fine line between childhood and adulthood “has been eroding.”  At Accidental College, dreams are greater than all and dreams, for Misha, are the substance of childhood:

At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicate white arms.  (230)

The classes Misha took at Accidental College reflect a curriculum that is not so much about preparing one for the adult world as returning one to the state of dreams and childhood.  He sees this as a symptom of something larger happening in America in which the fine lines between childhood and adulthood, on the one hand, and the personal and the fantastic, on the other, are effaced:

All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze. (230)

As support for this claim, Misha notes that he was gone to parties in Brooklyn “where men and women in their mid-thirties would passionately discuss the fine points of the Little Mermaid or the travails of their favorite superhero.  Deep inside, we all wished to have communion with that tiny red-haired underwater bitch.  We all wanted to soar high above the city…and champion the rights of somebody, anybody”(230).

Misha finishes his meditation on America by likening democracy to “the best Disney cartoon ever made.”

Although Misha often comes across as an out-of-touch fool, this meditation on America, like much else he says, has an element of truth.  To be sure, Shteyngart, in much of his work, celebrates the effacement of the fine line between childhood and adulthood.  The fact that his parodies of this effacement are mild and silly doesn’t do much to reinstate this line.  In fact, I’d say that that’s not what he wants to do.  Rather, it seems as if he sees this as a new, ironic norm, which, in many ways, comes to accept the childish aspects of American reality as a fact.

Reading his account, one wonders how much of this description resonates with the author of the new memoir Little Failure.  To be sure, Shteyngart no longer goes through characters such as Misha or Vladmir to explore his relationship to America; he goes by way of a reflection on himself.  And many of these reflections, as we can see from interviews and excerpts from his memoir, cast him as a man-child.

His “little failure” (as well as the picture for the book) give another shade to the America that Misha saw by way of his education at Accidental College and his experiences in Brooklyn.  They may be ironic, but the fact of the matter is that unlike much irony, which looks to wound or destroy its target, this irony is the irony of a kind of acceptance which, ultimately, is ridiculous.

In this irony, America, the land of dreams, becomes literalized.  This works well with Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi’s reflections on America in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination.   In her view, America remains a land that is perfect for the diasporic schlemiel.  Shteyngart adds to this by showing that its not just a land of dreams it’s a land of perpetual childhood where the line between being an adult and a child is, for all intents and purposes, effaced.

We don’t have to accept these generalizations or descriptions.  To be sure, they belong to a certain project.  To be sure, the schlemiel need not be seen as a man-child.  S/he shuttles back and forth.  And her failure is not something silly or childish.  This is what great Jewish American novelists like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow want to show us.

One that fine line between childhood and adulthood is effaced, however, failure itself will become “little” and silly.  When it comes to the schlemiel, we have to take this risk seriously.  The problem with characters like Misha is that they seem to have no problem with this, and we see this in his portrayal of American and his American education.

I suggest that the line between the two remain porous, but not effaced.  The question of what it means to become mature is at the basis of the question of failure.  We need to learn how to articulate this question by way of the schlemiel who is a comic failure.  His failures may be comic but let’s hope they don’t become so small as to become childish and silly.

When that happens, the meaning and power of this comic character will be lost.

When is too much…too much? The Exhaustion of Failure in Shteyngart’s Little-Failure-Ad-Campaign

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Ok.  Its good to know what someone is doing, but when is too much…too much?  And what happens when what he or she is saying is not particularly that insightful?

When it comes to the schlemiel, there is a limit.   Every good writer knows that.  Overkill doesn’t do the schlemiel well.  This is what I fail to see in the Gary Shteyngart’s ad campaign to promote his work.  The content of this endless series of faux pas – inside of interviews, a film trailer, the pages of memoir that he sent to the New York Times, endless praise in this or that newspaper, where we see the ironic little immigrant failure foregrounded – is too obvious and cliche.  It is overplayed and it actually reduces the schlemiel character to the endless repetition of bad jokes.   To be sure, I turn to literature so I don’t have to see all the schlemiel characters that Will Farell, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller do so well.  I don’t want to find Hollywood in a schlemiel novel (or a schlemiel memoir).  And I don’t want to hear the a self-congratulatory and slightly snarky tone that I so often find on the pages of New York Magazine.

When I see all of this, I realize what I don’t like.  What I want to see is a schlemiel that is far from New York Hipsterdom and Hollywood comedy.   And I have recently found this in the pages of Bernard Malamud’s novel A New Life.  What I discovered is that, not too long ago, the American schlemiel was a character who, though comic, was trying to seriously start a “new life.”  Shteyngart mimes this process in much of his work.

The life that his characters live or end off with in nearly every novel is, as I pointed out elsewhere “normal” or else lived in yearning of returning to New York.  The end is lacking believability because the characters are either too normal or too ridiculous in their life.

In Malamud’s A New Life, the main character Levin is much more believable.  His schlemiel character touches deep on the life of the male American Jew.   The failures of Levin are not too caricatured.   They feel like real failures.

In taking himself as his subject, Shteyngart’s failures are caricatured.   They are truly silly.  Though animated, they are about as interesting as the next article on your facebook feed.

A recent cartoon interview with Shtyengart is a case in point.

http://bookriot.com/2014/01/12/comic-interview-gary-shteyngart/

The ironic line that gives it all away happens when Shteyngart jokingly tells us that:

Inside the little clown was an angry kid trying to get out.  Had I been bigger I would have been some kind of bully. 

And the punch line:

Thank God for my tiny frame.

What we are left with is a Jew whose body limits his inner anger.  He doesn’t have the frame to be a man.  The joke is obvious and it makes the Jewish body into a pathetic site of failure.

What’s lost in all this is Levin, Malamud’s schlemiel.  When I think of Levin, I don’t think of his body.  I think in terms of his desire for something better than what he has experienced in his life.  He is a schlemiel because the life he ends up with is new but not in the way he expected.  He often makes the wrong choices, but not always.  He is not a pathetic failure, nor does he endlessly play on failure.  Levin seems to be on, but he’s  just a little off.   Nonetheless, he does have some minor triumphs.  And these are meaningful.  The treatment of failure in American life (for a Jew) is much more believable, humbling, and meaningful.  Malamud’s schlemiel is someone who I can identify with: his failures, real enough, hit on something common to many American Jews – even I, who was born from a different generation than Malamud, find something more resonant in his schlemiels (something that really is about being a Jew and being a failure).

Shteyngart is my age.  We come from the same time, but we come from different countries.  And, more importantly, we have a different understanding of the schlemiel.

Though I have spent a lot of time writing on his work, I always felt that this treatment of the Jewish-American schlemiel was missing something.  I couldn’t identify with his schlemiels as I could with Roth, Bellow, or Malamud’s.   In Levin, Herzog, and Portnoy there is a serious engagement with the link between an American, a Jew, and a schlemiel. Their schlemiels have given me insight into how Jewish schlemiels are locked into different identity-crises: one’s that matter.

The fact that the Jews survives this crisis while at the same time failing gives a deeper shade to the meaning of failure.  Shteyngart’s interviews and ads do the opposite.  In fact, watching them, I feel as if the schlemiel becomes more and more clichéd and empty.  Failure loses all of its content.

When did we ever settle for this?  What does it mean that Random House thinks that we can no longer live through the schlemiel like we used to?  When did they decide that the schlemiel was utterly meaningless by way of infinite repetition and non-variation?

So, when is too much, too much?  When is the praise of the “Little Failure” too much?

Answer: right now.

What we have with this repetition of a certain kind of  schlemiel….is the exhaustion of failure….